Patients should be informed if they have dementia

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The new head of the NHS has declared that patients have a ‘human right’ to be informed if they have dementia.

Simon Stevens said that GPs should always consider a diagnosis and not assume that patients would rather not know. He warned that the NHS has an ‘attitude of fatalism’ as far as dementia is concerned, as does the public, with patients and doctors assuming that there is nothing that can be done about it.

Dementia is characterised by the failure of brain functions, such as memory loss, and Mr Stevens is in the process of issuing new guidelines for family doctors regarding its diagnosis.

According to statistics, about 850000 Brits suffer from dementia, but 50% have never received a formal diagnosis.

In some GP surgeries, only 13% of dementia patients have received a diagnosis, which is less than one in seven patients. This low figure is partly due to patients and their relatives being reluctant to inform doctors about the symptoms as they contribute it to old age, or they think it is pointless as there is no cure for it. Some GPs do not want to send elderly patients for scans as they want to protect them from the news of the illness for which there is currently no treatment.

However, Mr Stevens stated that if patients are diagnosed, they could receive medication to help slow down the symptoms, along with vital advice and support.

Mr Stevens was addressing an Alzheimer’s Society conference in London when he stated that there is an existing attitude of fatalism surrounding dementia, which implies that nothing can be done about it, hence no-one wants to know about it. He said that this was the incorrect way of thinking.

He added that medication can help people lead a more normal life for a period of time. He said the patient and their family would have the opportunity to maximise joyful activities and plan against the potential crises and difficulties they may have to face. Above all, he said, it is a basic human right that patients are informed of their medical condition.

He said that the decision of patients and their relatives to present at a time suitable to them should be respected, but that does not mean the National Health Service should not act timorously.

According to the Government, two thirds of dementia patients will have received a formal diagnosis by next year.

The national clinical director for dementia at the NHS, Professor Alistair Burns, said that he would be paying a visit to those practices where the diagnosis rates were low to try and determine the reason for it. One GP, located in West Lincolnshire, said she felt reluctant about informing patients about their dementia as there was so little treatment and support available. She said that she is not against the diagnosis, but is not sure what to do after that.

Although there is currently no cure for dementia, it is possible to obtain drugs, which are available on the NHS, to temporarily slow its progression.

During last year, GPs were offered incentive payments by the NHS for increasing their diagnosis rates. All potential dementia patients are to be referred to memory clinics.

The NHS currently compiles diagnosis data for every surgery and the figures are compared to the expected number, based on the size of the surgery.

Image Credit: Vince Alongi

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